Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a story about the futility of self-deception, but it likewise analyzes the definition of “success” in post-WWII America and the threat of suppressing one’s own inclinations to meet the expectations of others. Willy Loman’s depressing failure results from misconceptions and a false sense of entitlement, but those are symptoms of a much deeper problem: his desperate effort to be something he’s not. His collapse is stabilized by Biff’s self-awakening, which questions the rigorous definitions of success that resulted in Willy’s failure. In the end, it may be Biff who is the most important character, the just one capable of modification. In Biff’s determination to face himself and pursue an alternative to the traditional American Dream, we see the flexibility and self-fulfillment that individuals consumed with social status can rarely accomplish.
In post-WWII America, people were buying the marketer’s claims that everybody deserved a brand-new automobile, expensive home appliances, and a huge house with a white picket fence. The definition of success was being whittled down into a rigid set of parameters. To Willy Loman and his ilk, success wore a company fit and brought a brief-case. Owning a better automobile or home or fridge than the neighbors was of paramount value. Willy embraces these material objectives, believing that great appearances, luck, and charm are all it takes to “end with diamonds” (160 ). Like numerous contemporary Americans, he lives beyond his means in order to project an impression of success. Wealth and upward mobility, or a minimum of the look of them, are what he is conditioned to pursue.
Despite Willy’s grandiose claims, there’s a sense that he does not belong in business world: he admits that “individuals do not seem to take to me” (116 ), that people laugh at him, that he talks excessive or makes too many jokes. Running beneath all of this are hints of Willy’s skill for working with his hands. He installs a ceiling, sets up plumbing, constructs a patio and garage and extra restroom. As Charley comments after the funeral, “he was a happy male with a batch of cement” (206 ). Biff most likely sums up the situation properly when he announces, “we do not belong in this nuthouse of a city. We must be blending cement on some open plain, or– or carpenters. A carpenter is allowed to whistle!” (138 ). Unfortunately, dealing with his hands doesn’t fit Willy’s vision of success. He informs Biff that even his grandfather was much better than a carpenter. Willy is so trapped in his desire to impress others, to attain social status and be “well-liked,” that he has reduced his own natural inclinations and required himself into a mold that doesn’t rather fit. He beats his head against the door of corporate America, refusing the concept of dealing with a farm, however a glance of some inner contradiction is had when he promises Linda, “we’re gon na get a little location out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens …” (148 ). After Willy’s funeral, Biff says quietly, “there’s more of him because front stoop than in all the sales he ever made” (106 ).
Biff’s epiphany, near the end of the play, comments highly on one-size-fits-all ideas of the American Dream. After trying to squeeze himself into his dad’s (and America’s) meaning of briefcase-carrying success, Biff finally confesses that he “don’t fit in service” (138 ), that he’s “just what I am, that’s all” (201 ), that the sky and “the work and the food and the time to sit and smoke” (201) are what he enjoys. He realizes that “all I desire is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I understand who I am!” (201 ). He is happiest working as a cattle ranch hand; accepting this fact gives him peace. Perhaps Willy would have found the exact same peace if he ‘d traded his match and shoeshine for a task that used his real skills.
Ultimately, Death of a Salesman exposes the mistakes of conforming to someone else’s meaning of success. Willy attempts so tough to be something he’s not that he can no longer deal with– or even see– himself. He totters through a world of lies, permanently lost behind a façade. Biff, nevertheless, breaks through the deceptiveness and restraints to discover happiness waiting. His enlightenment forces the audience to consider alternative courses to joy and see that wealth build-up is not the only marker of success. It gives permission to the Biffs of this world to be Biffs and not Bernards and, most importantly, not to regret it.